Everyone Should Make Tamales at Christmastime

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 19 2013 9:05 AM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Tamales

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Tamales: The meal that's also a craft.

Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo for Slate

Making tamales is a criminally overlooked Christmas Eve tradition in the United States. Tamales are common Christmas Eve fare in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, and in regions of this country with large Latino populations. But, in spite of periodic newspaper, magazine, and radio features about tamales in late December, the cornmeal dumplings have never caught on among the majority of Americans who celebrate Christmas. That’s a shame, because tamales are very possibly the best food you can make around Christmastime.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

This is because making tamales is as much a craft as it is a culinary endeavor. They require some special materials and a fair amount of counter or table space. You’ll get your hands messy. They’re fun to make in groups (especially groups that include children). They encourage creativity: Anything you can chop or purée, you can put inside a tamale. And your heart will swell—rather like the Grinch’s after the Whos’ rendition of “Welcome Christmas” in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!—when you see the beautiful results.

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Even if crafts aren’t usually your thing, you should reconsider this position at Christmastime. Many of us, this time of year, spend several days either hosting or visiting family members, whom we love but who have a tendency to push our buttons. (As Philip Galanes put it, they invented our buttons.) There is no better way to defuse familial tensions and to restore feelings of goodwill toward men than to engage in some sort of collective goal-oriented activity. It’s impossible to be mad at your older brother for the way he bullied you as a kid when you’re adjacent cogs in a tamale-making machine. You’re spreading masa and fillings on cornhusks, he’s rolling them up tidily, and maybe he’s not so bad after all.

So here are the main things you’ll need: 1. Dried corn husks, which need to be softened in hot water for a couple of hours before you start assembling the tamales. The husks form the inedible wrapping for each tamale, and they can also be torn into strips that you can tie around each bundle to make it extra secure. 2. Masa harina, sometimes called “instant masa,” which is made out of nixtamalized corn, the foundation of the impossibly delicious dough that is the crux of tamales. Maseca is a common brand, and you should buy masa harina intended specifically for tamales if you can find it, but undifferentiated masa harina is fine, too. 3. A filling that pleases you. Shredded braised pork and chicken are traditional in Mexico, but el cielo es el limite. I’m a vegetarian, so I typically go with refried beans and cheese. Feel free to mix and match different fillings. Just be sure not to overfill—a couple of teaspoons of filling per tamale is about the right amount.

One last thing: If you can find it, you can use the more traditional lard instead of butter in the dough. (I forgot to mention it in the video above, but you definitely need fat in your masa!) But don’t use lard if your main motivation for doing so is to annoy your animal-loving younger sister. That defeats the purpose.

Black Bean and Goat Cheese Tamales
Yield: 30 to 36 tamales
Time: 4 to 5 hours, partially unattended

About 40 dried corn husks
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper
1½ cups drained cooked black beans
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
½ cup butter, softened
4 cups masa harina
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 ounces goat cheese, softened

1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Rinse the corn husks well, then put them in a large bowl and add boiling water to cover them. Soak the husks for at least 2 hours.

2. Put the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the cumin and cayenne and season with salt and pepper; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the black beans and ¼ cup water; cook until the beans are hot, 2 to 3 minutes, then purée partially with an immersion blender. Set aside.

3. Put the stock in a medium pot over medium-low heat. While the stock is heating, beat the butter with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (or with a handheld mixer in a large bowl) until light and fluffy. Combine the masa, the baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt in a separate large bowl. With the mixer running, add about 1 cup of the masa mixture to the butter, followed by about 1 cup of the stock. Repeat until all the masa and stock have been incorporated.

4. Lay a corn husk on a clean work surface with the edges curling up. Spread about 3 tablespoons of the masa mixture into a rectangle along one of the long edges of the corn husk, leaving at least 2 inches of empty corn husk on each side of the masa. Spread about 1½ teaspoons of the black bean mixture and about ½ teaspoon of the goat cheese on the masa near the edge of the corn husk. Roll up the corn husk to enclose the masa and fillings, folding in the edges of the corn husk as you roll. Tear one of the remaining corn husks into strips and tie one of the strips around the tamale to prevent it from unfurling. Repeat with the remaining corn husks, masa, black beans, and goat cheese.

5. Put 1 inch of water in a large pot. Put the tamales in a steamer over the water, cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-high and steam until the tamales are firm, about 50 minutes, adding more water if all the water evaporates. Serve hot or warm. (Store leftover tamales wrapped in foil in the refrigerator for up to several days.)